Lack of cash strains national parks
June 24, 2006
By PATRICK O’NEILL
The Park Service’s to-do list gets longer as it is unable to meet rising operating costs
Visitors to the national parks go for the natural beauty, but this summer they’ll also see crumbling roads, fewer rangers and the grime of long-term neglect.
National parks are straining after years in which federal support has lagged behind the rising costs of park operation. The funding gap has left parks short of staff and unable to do simple upkeep.
As a result, at Olympic National Park there will be fewer rangers to give nature talks around the campfire.
North Cascades National Park near the Canadian border has 13 positions unfilled. The results won’t be noticeable this year, but without more support, visitors next summer will find fewer rangers and unkempt restrooms.
Mount Rainier National Park has cut back its greenhouse operation, which annually produced 70,000 native plants to restore meadows damaged by visitors.
And at Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park lack of maintenance dollars has put two of the park’s three rotary snowplows out of commission. That means the popular boat-tour area and the park’s major campground won’t be accessible until as long as 10 days after the normal June 30 opening.
The costs of operating the parks have gone up faster than the incoming federal dollars to support them. In 2000 then-candidate George W. Bush pledged to eliminate a $5 billion park maintenance backlog. But by most accounts parks are still buried deep in the need for upkeep.
The money shortage is forcing parks to delay maintenance of roads, equipment and buildings — a situation that veteran park-watchers say will be apparent to visitors this summer — and to cut the number of rangers.
Bill Wade, chairman of the executive council of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, said a big problem is that superintendents’ discretionary funds, which pay for maintenance among other things, are shrinking as fixed costs such as fuel go up.
Money is still available for special projects in some parks. But the daily operations suffer, he says.
The coalition is made up of about 500 retired Park Service managers, 125 of them former superintendents. Wade, a former superintendent of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, said park rangers with their familiar Smokey Bear hats are a fast-disappearing breed. While the Park Service insists there are more ranger positions than ever before, it’s hard to find out how many rangers actually roam the nation’s parks, he said.
“What the political leadership likes to do is quote the number of authorized positions,” he said. “That’s what Congress keeps track of. Parks may have so many authorized positions but because their budget’s declining they don’t have the ability to fill those positions.”
Indeed, Elaine Sevy, spokesperson for the National Park Service in Washington, D.C., said that from 1998 to 2005, the number of ranger positions increased by 228, from 4,381 to 4,609. Sevy said she didn’t know how many of those positions were filled.
“From here there’s no way we can determine that,” she said.
Size of backlog uncertain
Officials also are uncertain about the amount of maintenance that remains undone in the 390 park sites. In the past four years, she said, the agency has fired up a computerized system to keep track of the backlog of maintenance tasks. That system, which will also set priorities for maintenance, is scheduled to be running by the end of 2006.
In the 2002 budget, the Bush administration proposed to eliminate the backlog — then estimated at $4.9 billion — over five years. In May the Congressional Research Service reported that although the Park Service estimates it has spent nearly $4.7 billion on overdue maintenance projects, no one knows for sure “if the . . . backlog has decreased, increased or remained the same in recent years.” In 2005, according to the report, the U.S. Department of the Interior estimated the Park Service maintenance backlog at between $5.8 billion and $12.42 billion.
One maintenance issue that doesn’t need computer analysis is the paralysis of Crater Lake’s snowplows.
Chuck Lundy, Crater Lake superintendent, said that normally the park operates two bulldozers and three rotary snowplows to open the park’s high-mountain roads and campgrounds early in the season. But because of maintenance problems, one bulldozer and two plows are out of commission.
That leaves one plow and a bulldozer to cut through snowdrifts 30 to 40 feet high that block the spectacular road around the crater’s rim. The plow and bulldozer are busy clearing the road to the Cleetwood Cove trail, where tourists catch boats for the lake tour. Those same tired pieces of equipment also have to dig out the 220 campsites at Mazama Campground.
Lundy warns visitors to expect delays. “Normally we try to get the boats operational by June 30,” he said. “This year it will be seven to 10 days later than that.
The campground, normally open by the end of June, might not be open until July 14, he said.
Wolf Schwarz, acting maintenance division chief at Crater Lake, is one of park’s harried managers.
When he arrived 21/2 years ago, there were 55 to 60 employees on the maintenance crew compared with about 40 now, he said.
And instead of performing routine upkeep — scenic Rim Drive needs shoring up, for example — many of those workers are on special projects. Those include moving the visitor center parking lot and putting a new roof on a historic stone warehouse. That project is funded by a special appropriation, aside from maintenance funds, he said, but regular maintenance workers are assigned to the task, pulling them away from day-to-day upkeep.
Schwarz has been fighting a chronic spate of snowplow breakdowns. The weakest links in the plows are gearboxes and hydraulic pumps — complicated parts that often have to be removed and returned to the factory for repair.
Five years ago the heavy equipment shop had two mechanics and a service worker. Now there’s a single mechanic who’s been out sick, leaving a service worker to do repairs.
In addition to snowdrifts, Schwarz has to plow through a blizzard of paperwork blowing in from Park Service headquarters in Washington, D.C.
“There is more demand for information from Washington than there ever has been,” he said.
The Park Service is trying to catalog all the system’s maintenance priorities — a worthy goal, says Schwarz. But it stretches his already thinly stretched resources.
Law enforcement services at the park are under a similar strain. Chief Ranger Dave Brennan, who leads the park’s law enforcement rangers, said that in 2000 the park had four seasonal ranger positions compared with one this year. “We have a reduction in our capacity to do proactive patrols,” he said.
Keeping poachers at bay, monitoring illegal mushroom harvesting, helping drivers of disabled vehicles, delivering emergency messages to campers — all of those tasks will take longer, he said.
In many parks, cutbacks have shown up in the popular campfire programs in which rangers give talks on the park’s natural and cultural features.
Barb Maynes, Olympic National Park spokeswoman, said that in 1994 the park had nightly programs in each of the park’s three main campgrounds. Those events were scaled back in the face of ranger shortages.
In 2002 the park gave 229 campfire programs, Maynes said. In 2005 there were 138 campfire programs — 25 of which were funded and presented by the Kodak Corp.
“The Kodak programs have been discontinued for this year,” Maynes said. “I guess they’re going through belt-tightening too.”
As with other parks, volunteers are replacing professional rangers to escort nature hikes, she said, and visitor center hours have been trimmed.
Most of North Cascades National Park’s vacancies are in administrative jobs, says park superintendent Bill Paleck, so visitors won’t notice anything amiss this summer.
But if tight budgets continue, he said, next year’s visitors will see reduced visitor center hours, fewer wilderness rangers, slower response time from rangers in law enforcement and dirtier campground restrooms.
Park advocates are watching the resource squeeze with a growing sense of alarm.
Sean Smith, northwest regional director of the National Parks and Conservation Association, a parks watchdog group which formed in 1919, said his organization would like to see the federal government work seriously to eliminate the maintenance backlog and hire more rangers.
Smith called rangers the “indicator species” that reveals the health of national parks.
“You see the park one way when you enter it and when you hear a ranger talk about it you see it in depth,” he said. “The tragedy is that people don’t know what they’re losing.”
Smith said his organization is working on legislation that would establish a check-off on income tax forms to support the Park Service.
“The Park Service is on a wing and a prayer and chewing gum,” he said. “And it won’t be much longer before the wheels come off.”
Patrick O’Neill; 503-221-8233; firstname.lastname@example.org